Unanswered Questions in Tillman Report
Officials' Role in Disclosing Details of Death Remains Unclear
Tuesday, July 15, 2008; Page A17
Congressional investigators could not determine when senior Pentagon and White House officials learned the details of the "friendly fire" death of Pat Tillman, the Army Ranger and former NFL player, and what role they may have played in the misleading release of information about the 2004 Afghanistan firefight that killed him, according to a preliminary report released yesterday.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has been examining the aftermath of Tillman's death to determine why the military and the White House did not inform his family and the public about the nature of it. Investigators found that senior officials could not remember how they learned the truth or what they did in response to learning it.
"The Committee's investigation adds many new details to the Tillman story," according to the draft report, which is sc heduled to be approved by the full panel on Thursday. "But on the key issue of what senior officials knew, the investigation was frustrated by a near universal lack of recall."
The committee had similar problems with an investigation of the inaccurate accounts of Pfc. Jessica Lynch's capture and rescue during the early days of the Iraq war in 2003. Witnesses in that case told the committee that they could not remember how reports of Lynch trying to fight her way out of capture were relayed to the media, or why the military took so long to correct them.
The investigations stem from the committee's concern that the military used both erroneous stories to spread positive news about the wars. In particular, Tillman's death generated national coverage of his selfless decision to leave a potentially lucrative career in the National Football League with the Arizona Cardinals to fight for his country.
Initial Army reports in April 2004 indicated that Tillman died while heroically fighting enemies in a treacherous ravine, and he was awarded the Silver Star. But weeks after a nationally televised memorial service in May 2004, the Army announced that he was killed by members of his unit during a confusing firefight.
Tillman's family was infuriated that the Army had released a fake story. Follow-up investigations determined that Tillman was shot by a group of soldiers who rounded a corner and did not identify their target, despite his yells and a smoke signal meant to indicate he was a U.S. soldier.
The oversight committ ee, under the leadership of Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), found that military officers tried to send information to top officials regarding Tillman's death, but that the details did not reach Tillman's family. Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr. of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command told the committee that he did not learn about the nature of the shooting until after Tillman's memorial service, an assertion that others disputed.
According to the report, the White House sent a flurry of e-mails immediately after Tillman's death and worked his tale into a speech that President Bush gave at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner on May 1, 2004. The committee did not receive any such records regarding the revelation that fellow soldiers killed Tillman.
"In comparison to the extensive White House activity that followed Corporal Tillman's death, the complete absence of any communications about his fratricide is hard to understand," the committee wrote, adding that the White House turned over 1,500 pages of material. "Yet there is not a single discussion of the fratricide in any of these communications."
Former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the committee that he could not remember when he found out that fellow Americans killed Tillman. His military assistant told the committee that Rumsfeld learned the details in late May 2004 and called it "a shame," saying that the Army needed "to settle it and get the word out as quickly as possible."
The Army publicly announced that Tillman's death was by friendly fire on May 29, 2004, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Military officers thought the story would not receive as much attention on that day, according to the report.